A Letter to My Protagonist

I have abandoned my protagonist right when he begins yearning for more than what he has, and it is this yearning that will propel him to leave his hometown.

Dear Henri,

If you belonged to someone else, you would be at the end of your journey, standing in a glass aviary in Rhode Island, surveying where you have been during drafts one and two.

If you belonged to a faster writer, or a less frazzled one, if you belonged to someone whose only job was to sit in front of this very computer, imagining you for hours at a time, you would already be where I want you to go. There, in Rhode Island. If you belonged to a writer without kids, you would at the very least be better drawn, sharper in outline and messier in terms of internal conflict, when trudging through the farmland on the way to find yourself a ship and pay your passage to America.

Alas, you have not left yet, nor even considered leaving.

Your life, so far, in this second draft, is no hero’s journey. You are in bed, in 1853, suffering from a weak constitution and an acute fear of your own demise. You are also suffering from a surfeit of your mother’s attention and losing your place in your father’s workshop. You are where you began, in a small valley town in France, not yet dreaming of escape, not yet sure of your own strength.

Through no fault of your own, you are mired in Chapter Four–oh pitiable Chapter Four–your heart about to burst from the sudden admiration of a girl who thought to visit your sickbed. She arrived. She gave you a pen. At that very moment in your existence, I left the page to tend other matters.

There are no other protagonists in my life, let me assure you of that, Henri. A book about writing, full of writing by others, has taken me away. I owe time and attention to each word that each of these forty-some authors have given me. Each word is a seed. Together, there are enough words to plant a magnificent garden, a 200-page volume about the creative life and the writing process, and yes, you are in there. You are the young boy in my essay about finding time to write. Not yet grown into yourself. Not yet a hero. You are the one I think about when putting my children to sleep. I have written those words about you. Forest Avenue Press will publish those words in October.

But if I had no other obligations than to sit and study you, and if you were at the end of your journey, this letter would not be an apology; it would be a farewell. You are nearly two years old now, a mere toddler in terms of development, and although plenty of writers finish books in two years, I am not one of them. And I am not ready to let you go.

So let us celebrate what makes writing slow. The choice of a single word. The heady percolation of character, those days and months when you make yourself known on the page, when my brain and fingers conspire to record your presence. Geraldine Brooks, during a lecture in Chautauqua, New York, this summer, talked about sitting at her desk conversing with spirits of people from long ago. You are my spirit, Henri, my guide to the previously untrammeled territory my novel records, and I beg your patience for a few more weeks. I am almost ready for you, and I know exactly what you write with the pen that pretty girl gives you.

With apology,

Laura Stanfill

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1bhaB-Ni

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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15 Responses to A Letter to My Protagonist

  1. Having been your friend for many more years than I haven’t, I feel a little like we’ve spent as many hours on the phone discussing Henri’s motivations, choices, and journey as any man who has darkened my doorstep…and yet…Perhaps because he is, in the purest sense – like Adam created in God’s image (yes, this from your utterly non-religious pal) – of woman born, he is imbued with the absolute kindness, genuineness, and strength in his very softness, that makes me love him. I love your creative spark, your attachment, and your insight – the way you’ve crafted his path and have the patience to allow him to grow into what he will become. I believe in you and I know that, once he’s matured and you find that sacred quiet space, your work will be brilliant.

    • Oh, Lis. Your comment made me feel all mushy and nearly got me bawling! Thanks for being there for me all these years, and for being there for Henri, too! Our long conversations got him this far… and I’m sure there will be more as draft two gets rolling again.

  2. Let’s definitely celebrate what nakes novel-writing different from types of writing that are deadline-driven (TV shows, comic books, newspapers, etc.).

    Not that it’s better or worse, but we should enjoy the time we have to make things right, to tell the story in the best way we can. I don’t think Henri really needs an apology; think of everything he has to look forward to. 🙂

    • “Tell the story in the best way we can.” Exactly, Anthony. I think that’s what I love most about novel writing. I give myself all the time I need. Although I do wish Henri had gotten out of bed by now, his turn is coming in early November.

  3. emmaburcart says:

    That was beautiful. I’m sure Henri shed at least one tear hearing you read it out loud. And I’m so glad you haven’t forgotten Henri because I LOVE him!

    • Oh thanks, Emma! You’ll hear more about him soon, I promise. One of my writing group members asked me about this post last night, and I talked about needing to apologize to myself, too, for setting the novel aside. I was so wrapped up in that world, and loving that world, and then I dropped it to work on this collection. So when I get the book out, and read a novel for my other critique group (due October 22), then it’s Henri’s turn.

    • Thanks, Maggie! I brought a few pages of Henri into my writing group last night, which was interesting, because I didn’t have a chance to reread or make changes before the meeting. I just brought it in, and felt such a sense of distance discovering what was on the page. It was a good distance, and the pages worked, and will hopefully serve as a catalyst to get me back into the story.

  4. I am glad that you and Henri have each other. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a beautiful relationship. 🙂

  5. Pingback: Letter to My Protagonist « Maggie Madly Writing

  6. Pingback: Revisions: One Year Later | Laura Stanfill

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